Red White And Blue

Patriotism was on full display to a national TV audience Sunday on FOX coverage of the Food City 500 from Bristol. As is always the case during a time of national crisis or celebration, NASCAR, drivers teams, and fans all rose to the occasion to show support for our country. Some of it was staged and other times it was spontaneous, but a national TV audience was left with no doubt where NASCAR Nation stands on the war with Iraq.

Bristol management hit a home run by calling for stirring renditions of patriotic favorites in the pre-race ceremonies. The military command for “Drivers, Start Your Engines” and the flyover punctuated an already fervent ceremony. The throng of 160,000 did its part with an outburst of chants proclaiming “USA, USA, USA.”

FOX added its own touches by capturing some of the homemade displays and salutes from fans, tossed in tributes from drivers, and had Steve Byrnes do a touching brief interview with the wife of a deployed serviceman. None of it was too over the top, but it was right on the money.

A few other incidents that played out away from the TV cameras emphasize even more where NASCAR fans stand. Both were reported by Chris Jenkins in USA Today. In one case, a retired military officer informed the crowd that Sharpie markers are made in the good old U.S. of A., and “certainly not in France.” This brought on huge cheers from the crowd.

Then, a representative of the National Rifle Association referred to “left wing, left coast” liberals who want to infringe on their right to bear arms. This too brought on a thunderous ovation from the NASCAR faithful.

A few weeks ago, for the first time in recent memory, the pre-race prayer actually elicited an enthusiastic ovation during the prayer, when the minister mentioned President Bush by name.

NASCAR’s official statement early last week touched on the close relationship that’s always been present between heartfelt patriotism and NASCAR. Mike Helton reminded people that “Bill France has always described NASCAR fans as 'the kind of people who go to war and win wars for America.' Many of those fans are currently deployed throughout the world, doing just that. To that point, we should all be mindful of the sacrifices our troops and, just as important, their families are making during this difficult time."

All of this patriotism and the political leanings of the NASCAR fandom do not go unnoticed. In fact, it might be perfect timing for a reminder about where NASCAR’s core fan base is coming from. There’s been such a rush over the last few years to reach out to new fans that sometimes the faithful feel taken for granted.

To be certain, there’s nothing wrong with broadening the fan base, and it’s even necessary for the sport to survive and be healthy long-term. But it’s also just as important to not forget where you came from.

In other words, it might be a good idea to ask Sheryl Crow to stay in her mansion at the end of April when the Winston Cup race is run in California. Using the excuse that her hybrid car won’t start leaves the perfect excuse.

Last year, Ms. Crow, the #1 poster child for the new era of tragically hip NASCAR, was the grand marshal for the California race. Maybe you’ve heard her song, “Steve McQueen,” one of the 572 times it’s been played on a NASCAR broadcast.

This year, it’s probably best if she leaves her anti-war T-shirt at home and speedway officials instead ask Charlton Heston to head on over to Fontana in his gas-guzzling SUV. Hanging out at the Oscars with Michael Moore is probably a better opportunity for Ms. Crow at the moment.

NASCAR fans can be a very tolerant group. They’ve accepted Mariah Carey and Britney Spears without too much complaining. But now is the time for track officials and NASCAR leadership to stick to waving American flags, reaching out to its core demo, and inviting people like Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood or Charlie Daniels to sing the national anthem. And yes, that holds true even in California.

THIS WEEK’S NOTES: NASCAR’s overnight TV ratings for the Food City 500 from Bristol on FOX turned in a 5.1 rating and 11 share. Although these results show a 9 percent decline from last year, they really are an encouraging sign. There’s absolutely no doubt that the decrease is all war-related. The NCAA basketball ratings over the weekend were down over 20 percent from last year. The Oscars declined almost 20 percent on Sunday night, turning in their lowest ratings since the ceremonies started on TV 50 years ago. Throw in a Tiger Woods win at Bay Hill as strong TV competition, and a 9 percent drop is really a big win.

The final ratings for Darlington yielded a 5.9 rating and 15 share, a 2 percent gain over last year’s 5.8 rating. That was the fifth week in a row that NASCAR was the highest-rated sports event on television.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make a guest star appearance on “Fastlane” on FOX this Friday at 8:00 p.m.

Congratulations to ESPN’s Mike Massaro and his wife Kristin on the birth of Anthony Joseph, born last Wednesday.

Wally Dallenbach has signed on to host “Track and Trail Adventures with Wally Dallenbach” starting in July. Dallenbach will host this Outdoor Channel exclusive program, which will primarily consist of hunting across North America. Wally has teamed up with veteran Outdoor Channel producer Dave Watson for the effort.

The Mark Martin installment of “Beyond the Glory” is set to debut this Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. local time on most Fox Sports Net affiliates. The press release says that “Martin candidly discusses his thoughts on several difficult issues, including his relationship with his father, the failure he experienced early in his career and his battle with his inner demons of alcohol, depression and resentment.”

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